LONDON – When Donald Trump put himself forward to become the Republican candidate in this year’s U.S. presidential election, no rational observer thought he had a chance of succeeding. Now the polls suggest that he could defeat Hillary Clinton and become the next president of the United States despite the loathing that he has stirred up within the U.S. and the horror aroused among America’s friends around the world.
Trump has blustered and lied his way to fame. He seems to think that the more he reiterates his untruths the more they are likely to be believed, however irrational and implausible they are. The greater the lie the louder he rants.
Like a spoiled schoolboy he screams personal insults at anyone who opposes or criticizes him. He takes pleasure in public displays of bullying.
He is only coherent and marginally sensible when he is persuaded to follow a written script, but even on these occasions he frequently veers into invective.
His appeal is to all the worst prejudices and instincts of the least educated members of his audience. His instincts seem to be xenophobic, racist and misogynist.
Nevertheless he has managed to corral a crowd of enthusiastic followers who are mesmerized by his anti-establishment rhetoric and see him as a kind of political messiah. Much of his support comes from those who have lost out in globalization and the digitization of the economy. Their anger and envy have been fueled by excessive disparities in wealth in the U.S. and elsewhere — sometimes described jokingly as the division between the “have-yachts” and the “have-nots.”
In the course of his campaign Trump has managed to alienate the old guard of the Republican Party not least by ditching most of their international policies. The Republican Party was no friend to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump seems to admire Putin and apparently wants to do deals with him despite the threats that Putin’s policies in Ukraine, Syria and elsewhere pose to U.S. interests.
Trump declares that he will, in what some journalists describe as “bring backery,” “make America great again” while at the same time he undermines American commitments to NATO and to the U.S. allies in the Pacific, Japan and South Korea.
The Republican Party has espoused free trade policies and backed the expansion of international trade and investment. Trump favors protectionist trade policies and seems to want to tear up the trade liberalizing agreements, which the U.S. has concluded or is in the process of concluding, including the Trans-Pacific Partnership whose negotiation has involved so much effort.
The U.S., which only came into being through mass migration from Europe, Latin America and Asia, has turned against the tide. There is populist pressure not only to control immigration but to expel millions of “illegal immigrants.” Hence the cheers when Trump with typical bombast and lack of realism demands the building of a huge wall along the border with Mexico and asserts that he will make Mexico pay for this.
Sadly, Trumpery with its lies and appeals to narrow-minded prejudices is not a uniquely American phenomenon. Similar instincts were displayed by some at least of the supporters of Brexit in the recent British referendum. There are right-wing xenophobic parties in many European countries, including France and Germany, where elections are due next year. Although right-wing parties in these two countries are unlikely to gain power, their influence is growing.
Polls suggest that Clinton has the edge over Trump, but as Donald Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense in President George W. Bush’s Cabinet, famously pointed out “stuff happens,” or as the former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan used to warn, “events, dear boy” occur. Moreover pollsters often get their forecasts wrong. They failed to predict that the Tories (Conservatives) would win the 2015 general election in Britain or that the “leave” campaign would win the referendum. Unfortunately as the Brexit decision has shown, the electorate in many countries is sometimes prepared “to cut off its nose to spite its face” and does not care about the consequences of its votes.
The British government and civil service made no contingency plans for what to do if Britain voted to leave the EU. As a result Britain lacks a recipe for divorce from the EU and is striving to make sense out of a messy and complicated situation.
It is possible that Trump when in power will ditch or bury his more extreme policies and will begin to behave more like a mature man of 70, but such optimism may be unjustified. He will, in any case, be under pressure to fulfill at least some of his promises and he has yet to show that he can and will submit to the restraints that Congress, the courts and public opinion will try to impose on him.
It behooves foreign governments to give thought to “preparing for the worst.” Japan will in particular have to consider how to respond in both defense and trade.
If Trump demands a major increase in Japanese financial contributions toward the costs of U.S. bases in Japan, how should Japan respond?
If Trump reneges on the TPP and takes steps to limit imports or investment from Japan, what steps can Japan take to protect its interests without damage to an economy suffering from deflation?
If under a Trump presidency the U.S. provokes a major economic quarrel with China, what can Japan do to mitigate the likely consequential damage in the globalized economy to Japanese national interests?
I have no doubt that officials in the Cabinet Office, and various ministries are “burning the midnight oil” in trying to find answers to these conundrums. They are also, I am sure, in touch with other friendly governments so that a united front can be maintained against unreasonable measures that a Trump presidency might try to take on defense and trade. But turbulence, insecurity and dangers lie ahead.
Hugh Cortazzi was Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.